If Mike Modano plays a 21st season in the NHL, it won't be with the Dallas Stars.
The face of the franchise that proved hockey could thrive in the South will not be offered a contract by the Stars when free agency opens Thursday. That difficult decision had to be made by Modano's teammate-turned-boss, Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk.
They won a Stanley Cup together 11 years ago -- the only title in franchise history -- but the Stars have missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since moving from Minnesota in 1993. Nieuwendyk said the team needs to make room for younger players in trying to rebuild, and has too many players who need ice time at center.
"We have to try to find the next Mike Modano," Nieuwendyk said Tuesday. "We're never going to find the same Mike Modano, but we have some good young players that are going to push it to the next level."
The 40-year-old Modano said last week he wasn't sure if would play for another team or retire if the Stars opted not to re-sign the NHL's highest-scoring U.S.-born player. He said he felt good and was keeping up with summer conditioning work like he would if he were planning to play.
Modano didn't immediately return a phone call Tuesday.
Nieuwendyk said Modano has been "terrific" as the team tried to decide whether to bring him back. He said their friendship is the same, punctuated by a 30-minute phone conversation Monday night even after Modano knew he wouldn't be back as a player.
"He said to me, 'Joe, I'm not mad at you. Our relationship's not going to change,"' Nieuwendyk said. "I think at the end of the day they realize that it's difficult for me, too."
Nieuwendyk said he made the decision before free agency opened to give Modano the chance to talk to teams. The Stars have made it clear they want Modano in their front office, but that scenario is complicated by the team being up for sale.
"I'll be the first guy to knock on the new owner's door and pump the tires for Mike Modano, how important he is to our franchise," Nieuwendyk said. "If he decides to go play for another team, I'll support him on that, too. I think everybody agrees that when he is done, he's always going to be a Dallas Star and the door's always going to be open for him."
The top pick in the 1988 draft by the Minnesota North Stars, Modano has 557 goals and 1,359 points in 1,459 games over 20 full seasons. He helped Minnesota on a surprising run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1991 before winning the title in 1999 in Dallas and returning to the finals a year later.
When the Stars were at their best, Modano was the most popular player on a team full of fan favorites. The success fueled a 238-game sellout streak and a youth hockey boom that led to the Stars building ice rinks all over the area.
"The moment he stepped foot here in Dallas in 1993, for him to come into a non-hockey environment and steal the thunder of Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith and become the icon that he has become is quite special," Nieuwendyk said. "And I lived seven years of that. You don't replace that."
Now the question is whether Modano will join Smith as a franchise lifer who finished his career somewhere else (Smith finished in Arizona). Last spring's dramatic sendoffs in Dallas and Minnesota seemed to be the perfect ending for Modano, but Nieuwendyk knows better than most how difficult it is to stop playing. He faced the same decision four years ago, although without the emotional strings of an entire career with one franchise attached.
"I try to help him with some of that," said Nieuwendyk, who retired during the season because of back problems a few months after turning 40. "It's just his life and it's hard to think beyond it. At some point he will. And we all will have to look at Mike Modano not being on the ice."